Munnae-myeon, Haenam-gun, Jeollanam-do, 18 May 2016, 4:30pm.
The battle of Myeongnyang, in October 1597, was Yi Sun-shin’s penultimate victory, and the last one that he came out of alive. His final victory, the Battle of Noryang, came in December 1598 in the narrow strait between Namhae and the mainland, when a stray bullet killed him. In the years since his victory off Hansando in 1592 he had fallen out of political favour and the Joseon navy had suffered an almost catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Chilcheollyang in the summer of 1597. When Yi was recalled the navy was in such a state that he only had 13 paneokseon at his disposal. The only way to defeat the Japanese was using superior knowledge of location: pick a spot where he knew the movements of the tide and the currents, and use that knowledge to his advantage. The spot chosen was the strait between Haenam and Jindo, where the bridge to Jindo now strides, and where the currents can be so strong that they are audible: the famous Roaring Currents which provide the English title for the biggest-grossing Korean movie of all time.
The Korean ships were positioned at the northern end of the strait and lured the Japanese to engage as the currents were flowing northwards. There were 133 Japanese warships with around 200 support vessels. The Koreans had to hold out until the current changed and flowed southwards, at which point the Japanese warships were carried backwards and started to collide with their support vessels. The Joseon fleet was able to take advantage of the resulting chaos.
What does one expect to find at a spot where a crucial naval battle was fought over 400 years ago? To be honest, I’m not sure. In Tongyeong, where Yi Sun-shin had fought an equally decisive battle five years previously off the island of Hansando they had a few information boards which laid out the disposition of the fleets during the battle; they had replicas of Yi Sun-shin’s command centre and the lookout point on the island where he composed a poem. If you have a strong imagination, you can maybe think yourself back to 1592 as you sit in Yi Sun-shin’s pavilion overlooking the strait.
At the Myeongnyang battle site they have taken a different approach. The place was chosen for its treacherous “roaring currents” rather than for the fact that it was conveniently near the base of Usuyeong. So it is appropriate that any tourist site relating to the Myeongnyang victory should focus on the straight itself.
400 years on, there is a huge road bridge that connects Jindo to the mainland at the closest point – precisely the point at which the currents roar the loudest. In fact, a helpful signpost points the way to where in the movie the water had been at its most destructive. But on the day we visited, it required a vivid imagination to picture the turbulent GCI whirlpools that were a feature of battle scenes. The water was perfectly calm – though you could guess from some ripples that there was potential for movement beneath the placid surface.
On the seashore on the Haenam side is a statue, installed in 2008, showing a pensive, possibly troubled, admiral gazing out across the strait. At its feet is a quote from Kim Hoon’s novel “Song of the Sword”. The mood of the statue somehow chimed with my own pensive and peaceful mood at the time. In such beautiful, calm conditions it was hard to imagine the slaughter of battle.
The makers of the movie decided that the statue was slightly too contemplative. One publicity poster for the film is a clear copy of the statue, but the artist has decided that the Admiral should be wearing armour rather than an overcoat.
Of course, a strait has two sides. Haenam does not have a monopoly on the Myeongnyang battle site: Jindo has an equal stake. And Jindo has a different idea of the mood to conjure. On their side of the strait, on the northwest side of the bridge, they have erected their own statue of Yi Sun-shin. It dwarfs the human-scale form of the Haenam statue. Dressed in full warrior uniform, Jindo’s Yi Sun-shin prances like a demon in full war-cry, a rather humorous counterpoint to the brooding, tortured hero on the mainland.
In other respects Haenam and Jindo have a more harmonious collaboration: matching each other on opposite sides of the strait are semi-circular seating areas cut into the sides of the shore, where people can sit and watch the regular re-enactments of the sea battle passing between them.
Elsewhere on the Haenam-gun side of the strait walkways have been constructed, stone statues erected, pavilions constructed – the latter commemorating the movie as much as the historical event itself.
What does one expect of a site commemorating a decisive victory? I’m not sure. But for me, on that beautiful and serene day, Haenam had it about right: some parkland, some peace and quiet, and that pensive statue. Nothing much else is needed.
Historical Figures: Yi Sun-shin (이순신) (1545-1598)